WHO hardens pandemic warning

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 28 November, 2004, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 28 November, 2004, 12:00am

Estimate of 7 million flu deaths is conservative, say officials

World Health Organisation officials say estimates of up to 7 million deaths from a flu pandemic are conservative and have appealed to Asian governments to take urgent action to avert the imminent threat from bird flu.

The officials say the H5N1 bird flu virus has become more virulent and more deadly to many animals in the past year - meaning governments would be ill advised to delay action.

They were speaking to the Sunday Morning Post after the WHO's two-day meeting of health ministers from 13 Asian countries in Bangkok, which ended on Friday with ministers pledging to boost co-operation to head off the threat of a flu pandemic and to prepare plans to deal with one.

A flu pandemic occurs when a new strain emerges to which humans have no immunity. Many experts now say the H5N1 virus is the most likely candidate to spark a global disaster.

The Western Pacific regional director of the WHO, Shigeru Omi, said the estimate for infections and deaths put out at the Bangkok meeting on Thursday was based on figures from United States experts.

'The purpose of this exercise is not to come up with exact figures but to give the magnitude of the problem,' he told the Post. 'The one that was given by the WHO [on Thursday] is a conservative figure.

'Twenty-five to 30 per cent [of the world's more than 6 billion people] will be affected. This is the assumption based on the geographic situation today and the histories of influenza in the past.'

Klaus Stohr, head of the WHO's global influenza programme, whose estimates of 2 million to 7 million deaths caused ripples, said both history and the way H5N1 had behaved were reasons experts believed that a flu pandemic was closer than ever. 'Having such an avian virus now circulating and making it already partially into humans, causing disease, is not something which we can totally neglect,' he said.

'It would be ill-advised if we would just sit there, lean back, twiddle our thumbs, watch nature, watch what is happening. That must not happen in view of the possible health and economic implications of such a pandemic.'

The two waves of outbreaks in Asia this year have led to the deaths or destruction of more than 100 million birds in nine countries. Of 44 people who fell sick in Vietnam and Thailand, 32 - or more than two-thirds - died.

When H5N1 first jumped the species barrier in 1997 in Hong Kong, six of 18 people - or one third - died.

The outbreak was halted when nearly 1.4 million birds were culled.

After a four-year lull, H5N1 struck Hong Kong poultry - 70 per cent of which comes from the mainland - three more times between 2001 and 2003. A Hong Kong father and his daughter died of H5N1, while a son recovered in February last year.

'We have had pandemics throughout the last couple hundred of years and it is very unlikely that we might be spared in the century to come,' Dr Stohr said. 'History tells us that these are recurrent natural events.'

Dr Omi said he felt a change in attitude among health ministers since a meeting in Bangkok in January. 'They now seem to understand the possibility of a pandemic here [and] the need for improving animal husbandry practices.'

While the current outbreak has waned, the experts said bird flu had become more deadly for chickens and had infected a host of animals, including cats, tigers and pigs. It was also worrying that it had gained a strong foothold in ducks, which did not fall ill, they said.